In Defense of Consumption

There are many voices telling us we should consume less.  And we most definitely should. But I also think we need to consume more.  And consume well.

Myself and two of my good friends went on a fishing trip where we ate what we caught.  We had an inextricable connection to our food. While we talked and enjoyed our company, we put a worm on the hook, cast the rod, reeled in the fish, removed the hook and the fish’s head, then cleaned, gutted, and removed its scales.

Bread Fish Mosaic

Basket with Loaves and Two Fishes, mosaic from a 5th century church

At the end of the day we grilled our catch along with spices and fruit and many other tasty provisions, making a lavish meal out of our day’s work. And then, only then, could we feast. This took time and energy (we used the whole day) to create, and we enjoyed the abundant setting.

Contrast this experience with going through a fast food drive-thru window. You talk to a menu, a disembodied version of a person whose only relationship to you is economical.  You order a number. You give your new friend some money and receive a bag with more bags and boxes in it.  You don’t know where this food has come from, the people preparing it don’t even know where it came from. The food inside your box inside your bag bears little resemblance to anything you might have seen in the real world. You consume the food as quickly as possible (sometimes without even looking at it) and you don’t even need to leave your car to do so. The eating experience is trying as hard as possible to erase itself.

In this process we are attempting to live as much outside of the world as possible. There is little affirmation of our place in the physical world through the lens of a drive-thru experience.  It plays down our earthiness at the expense of time and pleasure.  The more we see our food as abstract from this world, the easier it is for us to see that in ourselves.  We are gnostic eaters.

Wendell Berry gets it right in his anthology of essays, What Are People For? in saying the modern experience of eating is more like feeding than feasting, and this makes it easier for us to lose the connection to our place in this world.

Some of this might sound absurd: we’re lamenting the ease of our existence? But what we’re really lamenting is not embracing our existence.  It’s not the ease so much as it is the forgetting. We forget that we are physical creatures, dependent on the land and therefore, the Lord, to supply our needs.  We like to forget this because it gives an air of autonomy, thin slice it may be.

Now we won’t always have time to spend an entire day on a meal, and I’m not saying that fast food is intrinsically morally evil, but we should be seeking lives that lead to less material consumption and more proper, meaningful consumption. The kind that emphasizes our connection to this world and doesn’t seek to remove us from it. This affirms how God made us. We need to feed less and feast more.

Box of Rocks

During the past few weeks I’ve found myself more aware of my own self-doubt in addition to experiencing it at a level higher than normal. I often feel as if what I’m doing does not matter and not only that, but what I am doing or creating is not good. It would be one thing to create something that I know is good, but have it not matter, but it’s another level altogether when whatever it is that I do is not considered good. And who is judging this good? Mostly myself: my preoccupations with perfection and self-hatred seem to multiply together to create a person filled with doubt and uncertainty. These are just the way it is for some of my weeks.

Then I have some weeks where I am arrogant and feel entitled. What I’m doing is not recognized as the greatest masterpiece of life that ever was and I’m angry about that. I am a misunderstood and brilliant artist who is not getting what is due to him, mostly because people don’t “get” art or think of it as something as important as they should. This is ultimately prideful, and my major aim in writing songs or teaching or whatever is for people to see how incredible I am. Oh, the irony of writing or playing a worship song so that people will bow down to me! These are just the way some of my other weeks go.

Most of the time, my life occurs somewhere between these extremes, but these extremes crop up here and there. And for most of my life, I would focus on getting things right so as not to go to these extremes. That is a valuable quest in itself, but I think something more important and fundamental must go on beneath all of this. The inconceivable fact is that through all of the goodness and badness in me, God still chooses to use it and create something good out of it. Not for my vain glory and not for me to feel better about myself (though I do), but for the progression of His kingdom. In fact, if we stop for a second, we’ll probably realize how tainted our “good” works really are. Our arrogance leads us to believe we can do perfect things. Only God working through us can take our lame offering of goodness and redeem it, creating true beauty, something of true importance.

The hard thing for me is to be OK with that. I want to know how to fix it, want to remove the mystery and grace of God coming to us, I want to not depend on God. And of course as we mature, we do learn how to do things better, but the harder thing for me (all of us?) is to accept the love of God. We don’t want it. We would rather go on without it. The acceptance assumes we want it or need it or were somehow worse off without it. My daily battle is to accept God’s love, knowing that He loves me, because I don’t believe it. It seems incredible: he comes alongside this lame self-doubting and arrogant sinner and gives him grace and mercy and even uses him to further His kingdom. It seems incredible because it is.

Woodworking and the Fall of Man

unfinished heelblocks

unfinished heelblocks

Arts and TheologyOver the Christmas break I was able to finish making an ashtray I started a while ago. It actually started as a guitar when I was a junior at UF. Myself and Steve, my roommate, were planning on making a guitar. I had access to the College of Art’s wood shop, so we had all sorts of cool tools at our disposal. Then we found out that making a guitar is really hard. And it takes a lot of time. So that ended up on the back burner for a bunch of years, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the fine pieces of wood that we bought in anticipation of our guitar masterpiece. One of those pieces that I’ve been carting around was a mahogany heel block, like the one in the pic. It’s basically a block of wood that you would finish and attach where the neck joins the body. It was a beautiful piece of wood, so I had to use it to do something. Not being a master wood worker and only having access to a Dremel tool, I chose something simple and functional: a cigar ashtray.

the finished ashtray

the finished ashtray

I routed out the tray (which took forever with a Dremel) and made a few spots to hold some stogies, sanded the beast and sealed it. The finished product doesn’t look too bad.

There was one thing that kept hitting me, though. I was always having to struggle with the material to get it to do what I wanted to do. This is a similar idea found in a book edited by Jeremy Begbie, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts. The chapter on the use of sculpture is written by Lynn Aldrich, a sculptor living in L.A. (here’s some of her work). My material was just a block of wood and it was using every ounce of inertia to stay that block of wood. I feel like the process really spoke to me about the universal idea of struggle or frustration. I had an end in sight and it took hours of struggle to see that end. This is not what life was meant to be. Life was never meant to be a series of struggles where in the end everyone dies anyway. But I have become so accustomed to struggle and frustration that I don’t often give it a second thought.

…cursed is the ground because of you;

Begbie's book is a great introduction, looking at many areas of art and the incarnation.

Begbie’s book is a great introduction, looking at many areas of art and the incarnation.

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

(Gen 3:17b-19)

Maybe we should all get more frustrated or annoyed at the curse of the fall. We probably just accept it more often than not, and that might be a simple coping mechanism so that we don’t all end up in despair. But despair can be a good thing at times. It points to the great divide of where we are and where we want to be. A despairing person is definitely not alright with the way things are.

But we aren’t just left with despair, we do have a hope, a light that shines ever so faintly at the end of our dark tunnel. This is faith- believing that light does exist beyond our current circumstance.

Can a person be in despair and hope at the same time? I guess that’s kind of the Christian walk, figuring out how to live in both of those worlds.